Disclaimer: This article contains information about sexual content. It is not suitable for all ages. Reader discretion is advised.
Let me be very clear with you, dear reader:
I was not a happy teenager. Pretty sure I wasn’t a happy preteen either.
It seems that not too many people would describe the transitional period from childhood to adulthood as “happy” in any way, but mine seemed to be an unusual misery. I was beset with asocial proclivities, chronic depression, and debilitating obligations at home that left me physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, suicidal ideations, a ceaselessly cynical outlook with no incentive for relief, a constant aura of trauma, abuse, and threat hanging around my domicile, and horridly regular misunderstandings that left me more injured than anyone else. So many days were just something to “get through.” I imagine that had I been beset with more commonplace burdens in tandem with my actual ones, I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now.
Most of what seems to make up the sufferings of my teen peers is largely more conventional. It mostly consists of the typical issues persisting in a) who’s sleeping with who, where, when, why, and how, b) not being accepted into the chosen rung of societal order as readily as one hoped, c) wrestling with internal insecurities and contemplating how to reconcile them with the demands of the mob of peers outside their door, and d) grotesque body changes with subsequent unrecognizable urges with terrifying-yet-hauntingly-alluring ramifications.
Big Mouth, Netflix’s new adult-oriented, animated sitcom created by comedy buddies Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett is a program that intends intimately and explicitly to explore all the horrors and wonders of going through puberty—more so the former rather than the latter. Many other teen and preteen dramas and comedies have made their bones rummaging into the disquieting and awkward aspects of adolescent life with varying degrees of success, but none have taken the hard and ugly truths about the process by the horns in the same way that Big Mouth does.
In a promotional interview for his directorial debut of Get Out, Jordan Peele (who voices a few side characters in Big Mouth) once remarked that comedy and horror have essential commonalities in their execution styles, thematic parameters, and expectations. Both are genres famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for explicitly engaging with disquieting subject matter that nearly everyone knows and thinks about but seldom voice in public for fear of violating the set standards of social grace. Comedy and horror also tend to have parallels in regard to their tropes and misdirections. The YouTube film commentator Jeremy Scott once quipped that the “jump scare” in horror is akin to the “fart joke” in comedy in that they are both oft-derided examples of poor execution. In that spirit, the two genres also have a common trait key to their respective reputations: they are notoriously difficult to do well.
Because of the struggle demanded from both comedy and horror, they usually have a starkly binary range of success in the minds of many their more cynical adherents. In order to be worthy of consideration, a work of comedy or horror must either be so good that it’s amazing, or so remarkably terrible that it becomes a whole different kind of amazing. In many ways, Big Mouth accomplishes both with a grace and fluidity that leaves one speechless.
We are first introduced to two young boys by the names of Nick Birch (Kroll essentially playing an animated version of his younger self) and Andrew Glouberman (John Mulaney as an animated version of Goldberg’s younger self). Andrew is heading down the violent rapids of male puberty with raging hormones driving him to chronic masturbation. Early on, the show introduces us to one of the two most iconic characters: Maurice the Hormone Monster (also voiced by Kroll), who carries himself as both a twisted Greek chorus member and a perverted Cheshire cat to all boys coming into pubescence. Operating and designed as the manifestation of raw male sexual id, Maurice sadistically compels Andrew to indulge his hormonal urges without any regard for public decency while berating him for being such a filthy, sex-starved degenerate. The responses that I’ve seen from other male viewers to Maurice were quite revealing, with some young men stating that he was a terribly accurate representation of their own hormonal compulsions in the coming-of-age ritual that is puberty.
I stated earlier that Big Mouth has in one key way pushed the envelope in how frank it can be when dealing with the concerns that are supposedly always lingering in the background of people’s minds while watching more tame shows about preteen life. To its credit, the show also pioneers in being equally frank about the struggles of burgeoning adulthood unique to the fairer sex. In the second episode, we are introduced to Jessi Glaser (Jessi Klein who, by virtue of namesake, I suppose is playing herself in a way as well) as she faces intense emotional agitation in the form of an overbearing mother who pressures her into awkward attire and equally awkward social functions with little regard for her feelings. Her frustrations here were also remarked upon by many female viewers as being “so real.” Of course young Jessi gets her first period not only during a school field trip to the Statue of Liberty, but also on the day her mother insists that she wear white shorts.
Jessi and another young girl named Missy (Jenny Slate) have as their hormonal siren another satyr-esque creature named Connie the Hormone Monstress (played to seductive perfection by Maya Rudolph), who, in contrast to Maurice, is more oriented around emotional fulfillment through unbridled and shortsighted means. Connie, likewise, urges Jessi to eschew societal demands of self-restraint and display random acts of intemperate fury and indecipherable bouts of infatuation that mark this point in life for many young girls (or so I’m told). What I found to be unnerving is how philosophically inclined these two hormonal beasts tend to be as the show progresses.
In fact, it is here where my benefit of the doubt for a show that I would otherwise forego entirely due to its ostensibly irreverent take on sexually explicit subject matter comes in. Make no mistake, dear reader: I’m no prude with regard to frank and explicit content in the narrative arts. One of my favorite 2013 movies is The Wolf of Wall Street, and anyone who’s seen that knows what kind of constitution it demands. But in recognition of the sensitive and vital essence of such carnal issues, I tend to demand a high standard of substance, refinement, and sophistication as deep as the show’s overall approach.
It’s a commonly held view among practitioners and experts of the narrative arts that how base and primal an audience’s preferences tend to be is inversely proportional to how refined and substantive in quality the work is, and there are few things more base and primal than puberty and sex. Because of this, an unusually high level of nuance and respect is needed in order for the narrative to be done justice in my view. It’s perfectly fine—even appropriate usually—for the characters to be impertinent, callous, and nihilistic, but not for the narrative as a whole. That is a crucial difference. And it is a distinction that Big Mouth fails to make.
Perhaps “fail” is an undeserved token of praise. Failure at least implies that an attempt was made. Big Mouth carries and delivers itself as though hollow impudence is its entire raison d’être. Much like the more stone-faced Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, this program makes a great show of very critical matters in a way that manages to be quite engaging in how unprecedentedly unfettered it is in its display and implementation. But, also like 13 Reasons Why, the fundamental takeaway from the whole ordeal is more deleterious than anything.
Thanks to Netflix largely being free of censorship, incredibly frank dialogue is exchanged between kids and their parents and peers as they work to understand the unnerving changes that they are going through. In the final scene of the final episode, Maurice breaks the fourth wall in remarking that it’s a good thing the show is animated, otherwise it’d be skating too close to child pornography. One could make the argument it already has not only skated too close but rightly sunk into that cesspool—but the deliberately crude and unappealing character designs and lack of unironically prurient imagery inclines me to differ. No, the major point of contention on my front is the defeatist existentialism that surrounds and penetrates the whole affair.
Far too many get the impression that tragedy in storytelling amounts to an admission and jaded acceptance of defeat. This is a dismissive and reductionist take on the subject. If we were meant to be so jaded by defeat, we would no longer be expected to take it seriously in the context of tragedy. Throughout my artistic career, I find the most profoundly life-affirming stories to be the most solemn and morose. Having said that, the reason why such stories work so well is that at the heart of the tragedy is winsomely life-affirming meaning to not only justify the tragedy in pragmatic terms, but also animate it with a uniquely engaging and lasting pathos that is not easily found elsewhere. Light tends to shine best in the dark anyway. Such meaning is remarkably absent and barred off in Big Mouth.
The difficulties of living out the life of a physical adult but psychological child are certainly worthy of direct exploration; they most assuredly deserve more than what they’ve been traditionally given. What is not needed is yet another adult animated comedy that thinks it’s achieved some sort of intellectual nirvana in espousing cynical nihilistic talking points amidst its absurdist humor. I should have seen the red flag when Jessi gets a lecture on the insufferable mire of self-loathing that is womanhood from a sentient Statue of Liberty (also Nick Kroll). Another clue is Connie giving what is admittedly one of the funniest tirades in the program during Jessi’s bat mitzvah that also amounts to little more than explosive passive-aggression (“You are a woman now and this is what women do. We suck up all the bulls**t life dumps upon us and keep smiling through it all in our boxy-a** dresses!”). But once all the key characters huddle on a dance floor and give a lyrically dynamic song-and-dance number with quips like “Life is a f***ed-up mess! Oh, it’s a s**t show!” and “No one is truly happy!” I was awakened to the true nature of my surroundings and happy there was only one more episode to go.
All this and I still didn’t touch upon the various little pinpricks I bore out through the binge watch (a binge watch that Maurice was more than happy to both acknowledge and encourage in one of his candid acts of violence against the fourth wall). Don’t even get me started on the writers’ sting about the late Justice Scalia being a closeted homosexual, or the whole episode in which a particularly combustible lad has a full soap opera drama with his pillow (Kristen Bell) that he specifically engineered for sexually charged purposes, or the bit where Maurice sodomizes Garrison Keillor’s severed head in a drunken stupor. I wish I were making this up. Well, maybe not. That would cause me to question my integrity.
Granted, there were a few nuggets of intrigue that kept me watching with sincere intent. The final episode was a surprisingly accurate and responsible screed on the damaging effects of porn addiction, for example. There was a fascinating scene in which Jessi has a very forthright and open anatomical discussion with her own genitals (Kristen Wiig) that managed to leave me slightly unsettled (and, I confess, newly educated). With that said, all the proper sex ed that the show could provide is not worth much when I count the cost.
And sex ed for who, exactly? Lord knows that while the show is certainly oriented around those poor souls crawling onward through prepubescence, pubescence, and postpubescence, the complete package of the show is not in any way suitable for the current denizens of that time of life. Only those with the aid of hindsight and some degree of intellectual, moral, and philosophical maturity could even engage properly with what Big Mouth has to offer—those who have long advanced beyond that point in life and have no immediate contention with its challenges.
Then again, high school never ends…